How China takes American know-how and technology right from under our noses

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Can it be? Scientists from China work on sensitive projects at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, then go back to help China with what they’ve learned. A study by Strider Technology says this has happened in at least 162 cases. And that gives the Chinese government a shortcut to hypersonics, submarine detection, autonomous vehicles and other technologies....

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

Can it be? Scientists from China work on sensitive projects at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, then go back to help China with what they’ve learned. A study by Strider Technology says this has happened in at least 162 cases. And that gives the Chinese government a shortcut to hypersonics, submarine detection, autonomous vehicles and other technologies. Here with details, Strider, co-founder and CEO Greg Levesque talked to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And before we get started, just tell us a little bit about Strider because you don’t see commercial companies doing this kind of research very often.

Greg Levesque: So, Strider, we’re a three-year-old venture backed data business. We launched in May of 2019. And it was started by myself, my identical twin brother, and our CTO Mike Brown. And we build data driven software products that enable corporations and government agencies to better protect their intellectual property, but more importantly, compete in this new era of geopolitical competition that we’re seeing.

Tom Temin: And it sure is geopolitical competition, as we’ve seen with just the latest assembly in China, you know, reaffirming Xe Jinping as the leader there for Lord knows how long and tell us about this study? You went to open sources to learn exactly what?

Greg Levesque: Tom we live in the open source domain. So that is what drives our business. And that’s where we collect the data that we then process and deliver to our customers. So that is an area of expertise that we have. This project in particular really emanated from a earlier news article from the South China Morning Post, where they describe this club of former Los Alamos scientists now in China that are working on a variety of military research and development programs. The issue I had with the article, though, was that it didn’t actually describe who was part of the club, what they were doing. So you know, when we were looking at was what were some of the projects going to be at Strider for 2022. We had the team look into this particular issue. So I was blown away with the scope and scale of the findings, I thought it would be a small club. Turns out it’s quite large; we identified over 163 former Los Alamos scientists who had now returned to China. And as you mentioned, at the start of this conversation, we’re now helping to advance Chinese military programs on hypersonics, deep earth penetrating warheads, stealth submarines, you name it.

Tom Temin: And did you get to the genesis of how these particular people came to Los Alamos in the first place, with possibly knowing that they would not stay in the United States forever?

Greg Levesque: They all come through different methods. So some are hired as permanent staff. So that was one of the smaller subsets of the data that we collected about 15 of the 163 were permanent staff members, the vast majority were postdoc fellows and visiting fellows. But just to kind of put it into some perspective for you. If you just combine the permanent staff and the postdoctoral fellows, that means they’ve been there for years, right? Eighty percent of them, or 90 of those folks were recruited into Chinese government talent programs, where they received financial awards, research labs, et cetera, to incentivize them to return to China and help advance those programs there.

Tom Temin: Right. So you were able to draw at least an implied line between their being sent to Los Alamos and deciding to join Los Alamos with the understanding that they would be incentivized to come back to China, with what they learned what the intellectual property they might have picked up and help China. I mean, Los Alamos is supposed to help the United States.

Greg Levesque: I agree with that. And, you know, look, it’s not to say that all of them were sent to Los Alamos National Labs. A number of these folks came to the United States, received advanced degrees, were hired at Los Alamos, were there for decades working. Over time, they were then identified, developed and recruited. Then there are some folks who I think we could argue were sent to Los Alamos to get education, training, work with permanent staff members there on sensitive projects, and we detail one of those instances in the report.

Tom Temin: Tell us about that instance.

Greg Levesque: So this is a case where a permanent staff member at Los Alamos, an individual named Zhao Yusheng, he had a Q level clearance and he was at Los Alamos for almost 20 years. He was working on deep earth penetrating warheads, in the data that we pulled and work going through, one of the things we recognized was that he had a protege, a postdoctoral fellow, who, under his tutelage did a lot of work and research on the same topic, deep earth penetrating warheads. And then after his fellowship ended, he returned to China and began working on some national defense research projects there, and then actually even filed a patent shortly after his return on this topic. And so, you know, given what we were looking at, it seems the timeline certainly would suggest that he took things that he learned at Los Alamos under the direction of Zhao Yusheng and then returned to China and actually patented it and continued his research there.

Tom Temin: We are speaking with Greg Levesque, co-founder and CEO of Strider Technologies. And you have made a report about this and detailing this, a long report. Any reaction yet from Los Alamos itself, or anyone else in the government?

Greg Levesque: You know, look, I think there’s no longer this question of whether or not China is engaged in these types of activities. What we look to do is really bring some data to the table to help folks understand the context of these activities, and what is happening so that more sophisticated policies can be developed to actually counter it. And this report was not just looking at Los Alamos, per se, really what it’s looking at is, what is China doing at scale, to identify talent and technologies in the United States? And then how are they actually executing that plan? You know, we all know that China is not above stealing IP. That’s been demonstrated time and time again. But I think there’s a problem and how should we develop new security frameworks and postures not just within the government, but within companies to actually identify these threats and mitigate them before it becomes an incident and the IP is stolen? So, you know, look, I think we continue to be in, by “we”, I mean, the West, corporate security teams, government, we’re continuing to be reactive to the problems wherein, we really need to develop a more proactive framework and understand how China’s implementing these tactics, and then target them specifically.

Tom Temin: And do you have any metrics for who is downloading the report? Yeah, we do track that without naming names, but are government agencies getting it?

Greg Levesque: Government agencies are downloading it. We’re also sharing it with them, not only here in the United States, but around the world. Corporate leaders are seeing it as well. The university leadership have looked at it. So broad swath of different stakeholders.

Tom Temin: And I wanted to ask you a little bit more detail about the methodology. How did you find out after reading, I presume it was an English online version of the Chinese daily?

Greg Levesque: You’re talking about the initial article, it was the South China Morning Post.

Tom Temin: But that’s English.

Greg Levesque: That wasn’t English.

Tom Temin: Got it. Okay. And then what did you do? How did you follow up on the existence of this club?

Greg Levesque: You know, look, we have a pretty unique capability to collect data in third countries overseas, and then process that data at scale and automated manner. I personally used to do this manually, a lot of the folks on our intel team would do it manually. So we are in essence, automating a lot of that capability today. So we leveraged our own in-house tech stack and data science team to help process all of that data and winnow it down into something more consumable around this topic area. And then we’re able to go through that and identify these different 163 folks.

Tom Temin: You’re sort of artificial intelligence, gum shoes, in other words.

Greg Levesque: There is certainly an AI machine learning component to it. But look, more importantly, it comes back to how do we understand nation – state competition within industry. And that is, I think, a really important point to note here. China is not just targeting governments around the world, they’re literally targeting industry. And they spend as much money from an intelligence services perspective on organizations like Los Alamos, on corporate America than they do on targeting government employees and secrets there.

Tom Temin: And getting at this information, as you mentioned, it’s open source, ultimately, but it needs to be found and processed. What about the language difference? I mean, if you’re looking at French, or German or Spanish or something, that’s one issue. But looking at Chinese, Mandarin, that’s so totally different language wise, that’s got to be a factor in processing all of the information, or at least even identifying it?

Greg Levesque: For sure. The way that we’ve constructed our technology and the way that we collect and process that data, takes that into account. And what I mean by that is, you know, we’re not bulk translating things into English and then analyzing it from there, we live in the primary source and in the original language.

Tom Temin: And that takes a lot of nuance, because there are nuances in language that just don’t translate, aren’t there?

Greg Levesque: Absolutely. And there’s different euphemisms that are used in Chinese to suggest much broader concepts than if you were to translate it directly into English. There’s historical idioms and things like that, that comes into play. So you know, all of those pieces need to be considered when you’re looking at nation states, like China, or even Russia, or even Iran, right? Languages window into the culture and their way of thinking.

Tom Temin: And it’s hard to say to an agency to a national laboratory to a corporation, don’t hire anyone Chinese. Because that’s not the way we operate in this country. And there are many Chinese people that have become Americans and totally loyal. So how do you navigate those grounds in your best thinking?

 Greg Levesque: Yeah, look, I’ve never been a proponent for some of the calls that you should ban a scientist from China or not allow them to study at universities, particularly within STEM. I think there should be a much clearer path to acquiring and developing talent globally. We’re certainly in a talent war. That is what this report, I hope, really encapsulates. The fact that, you know, the winners and losers of the emerging tech competition that we’re in, it’s going to be the best talent is who wins. And so China’s engaged in this competition. I feel like we, the United States, don’t really view it in that same lens. And it’s to our own detriment. We should be developing plans and policies around how do we not only attract but retain this talent, so that they’re not taking Chinese government funding and talent program awards, and heading back there to support those efforts. So that’s my view of the topic. My hope is that bringing data to the table, evidence, is what helps us get past some of the rhetoric, particularly in DC around this topic. And we can actually then drill into where are the problem areas? Where are there some areas for improvement? And how do we then kind of balance this out? Because we’re never, you know, I like to joke to the team, we’re probably never gonna get to zero IP theft loss in the United States. But can we move it from 600 billion to 200 billion? Like, that’d be really nice.

Tom Temin: Greg Levesque is co-founder and CEO of Strider Technologies.

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